Over at the Huffington Post, concerned mother Rachel Mosteller has an article up, “Raising Mini-Addicts” which states:
I believe I’m trying to do the best for my kids. I want them to be happy, well-rounded kids. I want them to hopefully have good lives, whatever they deem that to be. I have to say I’m a little concerned about what I’m up against. A couple weekends ago, we went to a birthday party where a 4-year-old had her very own computer situated on a kid-sized table. Surrounding the computer were a variety of computer games for her use. My jaw dropped to the floor. A computer? For a 4-year-old? Are you serious?
For myself, the short answer is yes indeed.
But the longer answer is yes, but I do things a little differently.
When my daughter (now only three and a half) was still a toddler, my wife and I talked about ways to save money and we eventually came to the conclusion that while we use the internet a LOT, we just weren’t watching much cable TV. So we decided to cancel it; I can read the news online and my wife can watch older movies on DVD. This arrangement works surprisingly well for us. Now, since we never bothered to hook up an antennae, we’re limited to what we have on video. My daughter gets TV as a special treat and because what she watches is mostly on DVD, there is no strong desire to be at the TV at a specific time for a specific show. We control the programming and keep it commercial-free. Generally we watch the show with her (or stay in the same room anyway ;) to make sure she’s ok with it (FYI to new parents: a tired child can get easily scared by something they would be fine with if they were fully awake).
Now, readers of this blog will note that I am a Linux user :) Linux is nice because it encourages people to tinker. Here’s the point at which I diverge from the article:
The most my children know about computer is that sometimes we let our daughter use the paint function and that there are both photos and videos on it. They are never allowed to touch the computer without our direct consent.
When my daughter was old enough to begin to want to play with my computer I got, for free, a quite ancient 300 MHz system with precious little RAM and no HD and hooked it up to a CD-ROM drive with just a Live CD of the aptly named “Damn Small Linux“. So when I was using my computer, she could sit down next to me and poke away at it without any risk to the OS (since its booting off a CD). For a time she was perfectly happy with that. When she got to the point that she began to understand how a mouse and keyboard worked, I was able to salvage another machine, an old AMD (K6-2) running at 500 MHz with 128 MB of RAM and a HD, and put Ubuntu on it (rather underpowered for Ubuntu, but it played music with XMMS; if I had to do things over I would have used Xubuntu). I got her a tiny travel mouse that fit her hand perfectly. I set up buttons for her to play music, or look at pictures (e.g. from perusing Wikipedia with her). I’ve since gotten her a slightly better computer (500 MHz Intel Celeron maxed out w/256 MB RAM from circa 1999… woo! ;). She still doesn’t use the internet on it, but she does know how to do updates and will come to me to watch things like baby hamsters on my machine. But she plays TuxPaint and uses simple games.
The point is to give her a measure of independence and training. The computer can be used most of the day (e.g. not during meals) if she wishes, but she doesn’t usually want to. In fact its been several days. Right now she’s much more interested in a (real) Speak & Spell. Sometimes we give her ‘noisy time’ where she can go to her room and make basically all the noise she wants (emphasis on the IN HER ROOM part ;) for a few minutes (to get it out of her system) where she plays with bells, a recorder, tambourine, etc. Recently we bought her a generic hula hoop at Dollarama and she’s found that to be more fun than the computer for the time being.
If you don’t want your child to use tobacco, explain to them why its bad and tell them they should NEVER use it. If you don’t want your child to play with knives, electricity, fire, poisonous household goods, etc., explain to them why its dangerous to use them now, how they need to respect it and how they will be able to use them safely when they’re older. Perhaps let them use a plastic knife on their food. Treating computers as dangerous objects without sufficient explanation while you yourself use them is a bit of a tease IMHO.
I get emails about them from time to time, inviting my child online to do “crafts” or “play games” with her favorite characters. All the major networks aimed at children have sections for kids and it scares me to death. I haven’t made any set “rules” regarding these devices and my children just yet.
I think the above illustrates that the problem is NOT with the computer, but rather with the choice of media. You can let it become TV++ to zombify your kids, or you can take control and make it into a rather neat toy. Get an old clunker, disconnect it from the internet, put some audio and video on it, some simple games that you’ve approved and let them poke around at it. Fix it if goes wrong and show them how to fix it themselves. My daughter surprised me by showing me a way of changing the desktop background and toolbars by a method I would never have tried. They learn fast :)
They’re still young and haven’t shown any interest in playing on the computer or getting an iPod (thankfully). I’m not dim; I realize the day will come that they’ll wonder what else is on the computer besides paintbrush.
Show them :) Teach them how to use a computer just like they’ll need to learn how to use a toothbrush, knife, or an electric cord. Certainly unregulated overusage can lead to bad things, but if this technology is to be a part of your children’s future, you need to show them how to use it right.
When that happens, you can bet that I won’t be giving them a free for all on a computer or with a different gadget. I want them to learn to use these items in moderation while still enjoying the non-technical side of life. Phones and computers do have places in our lives, and it isn’t at the top of an altar for them to worship.
And yet, I fear, that by treating technology as semi-taboo items, you are doing just that…